A Beginner’s Guide to Frank Zappa

Singer/Songwriter Frank Zappa plays DJ for a day at WKLS 96 Rock in Atlanta Georgia. October 25, 1981
(Image credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

With well over 100 album titles to his name, when it comes to Frank Zappa’s discography it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are five exemplary Zappa works from different points in his towering career as an electric guitar player...

1. Hot Rats (1969)

Harmonically pleasing tunes, warm jazz-fusion styling, terrific playing and incredible sound quality create a triumph of an album. “Peaches en Regalia” remains one of Zappa’s most enduring tunes, and Captain Beefheart adds bizarre vocals to “Willie the Pimp.” 

This is the record that people who don’t like Zappa are most likely to enjoy.

Frank Zappa Hot Rats

(Image credit: Bizarre/Reprise)

2. Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)

Most artists treat live albums as greatest hits with crowd noise, but Zappa used the format to present new and dramatically reworked material. Twisted jazz meets performance art on “Bebop Tango”, the funky “Village of the Sun” gives way to the monumental jazz-prog-percussion extravaganzas of “Echinda’s Arf (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” while the low-budget horror tribute “Cheepnis” and the improvised skit “Dummy Up” provide comic relief.

Frank Zappa Roxy & Elsewhere

(Image credit: DiscReet)

3. Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III (1979)

Joe’s Garage has all the elements any prog fan could wish for. A sprawling concept narrative, it takes in rock musicians’ peccadillos, individual freedoms, invented religions and government censorship, along with epic guitar solos, pop, reggae, rock, spoken word and, er, sex with domestic appliances. What’s not to like? 

For those who think Zappa’s music was cold-hearted, listen to “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” and the sublime “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” and reconsider.

Frank Zappa Joe's Garage album artwork

(Image credit: Zappa)

4. Jazz from Hell (1986)

Frustrated that his complex instrumentals couldn’t be played by real musicians, Zappa created digital sounds from scratch and programmed all the music for this album (aside from the live track “St. Etienne”) entirely on Synclavier, a vastly more complicated job in 1986 than with today’s digital options. 

The result mixes flurries of notes with avant-garde sensibilities, deliberate dissonance with lush melodies, and fiendish rhythms with hummable tunes. It’s a stunning collection from a heavyweight modern composer.

Frank Zappa Jazz from Hell album artwork

(Image credit: Barking Pumpkin/EMI)

5. Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991)

Along with 1988’s Broadway the Hard Way and 1991’s The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, this album was recorded on Zappa’s final official band tour, in 1988. Many claim this lineup (which features Mike Keneally) was the best he ever took on the road, and these albums bring together threads of Zappa’s entire career. 

New and old tunes, and some eclectic cover versions, are played with incredible precision and brio. It’s a fitting testament to the range of a singular musical genius.

Frank Zappa Make a Jazz Noise Here album artwork

(Image credit: Barking Pumpkin)

Check out the official Frank Zappa discography here.